The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

The Contours of Settler Colonialism in Civil War Pension Files

Today we share our first post from our new correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy, an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. Her current research emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. Drop a note in the comments below and welcome her to the Muster team!

Private Peter South was part of Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters, known by contemporaries as “the Indian Company.”[1] In June of 1864, Confederate soldiers captured South near Petersburg, Virginia. Six months later, South died due to scurvy while a prisoner at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia. His mother, Lucy Kamiskwasigay, applied for a pension soon after her son’s death. Other Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi) individuals tried to help Kamiskwasigay receive a pension.[2] For example, in May of 1868, Joseph Wakazoo testified in support of his late comrade’s mother: “Her son Peter, had he lived and discharged a son’s part, would have supported her in old age, but he gave his life to his country….” Wakazoo pleaded on behalf of Kamiskwasigay: “All her property—except a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department, + which she has no right to sell, or means to improve—would not sell for over fifty dollars, and that amount would not pay her debt, contracted on the sure belief that the United States Gov. would redeem its pledge by granting her, in common with others, a pension.”[3]

Wakazoo made many claims on the government in his brief deposition. He appealed, like many veterans, to the government’s “pledge” to support Union soldiers and their families. By mentioning Kamiskwasigay’s allotment—”a piece of land granted to her by the Indian Department”—he also noted her Indian identity and status. Wakazoo emphasized that this Anishinaabe mother should “get her just due” from the government.[4] Kamiskwasigay was awarded a pension in 1869.[5]

Caption: Kamiskwasigay lived about two miles from the south shore of Little Traverse Bay, near Bear River (Petoskey, Michigan). Henry Francis Walling, ed., Atlas of the state of Michigan: including statistics and descriptions of its topography, hydrography, climate, natural and civil history, railways, educational institutions, material resources, etc. (Detroit, MI: R.M. & S.T. Tackabury, 1873), 51. Courtesy of Michigan County Histories and Atlases.

The pension claim of Private South’s mother tells a familiar story, illuminating how a network of South’s former comrades and community members worked to help his mother receive a pension for a dependent parent. Kamiskwasigay’s pension application also tells a story of Indigenous soldiers and their families that is not as familiar to Civil War audiences, especially undergraduate students. Peter South was one of the approximately twenty-thousand American Indians who served in Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.[6]

The experiences of Indigenous veterans and their families demonstrate intersections between the Civil War and settler colonialism in a way that is accessible to students. Susannah Ural, in her March 2019 Muster post, notes that student research on the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students gain a better understanding of complex topics and issues.[7] I encourage students to consider the concept of settler colonialism. While colonialism is often characterized by the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism requires the removal of Indigenous people in order for settlers to permanently occupy the land. The logic of settler colonialism in the nineteenth century demanded that American Indians disappear through physical removal or cultural and political assimilation.[8] My students discuss how settler colonialism applies to the history of the nineteenth-century United States and how to use it as an analytical framework for understanding primary sources.[9]

The narratives found in American Indian pension files help deconstruct the concept of settler colonialism while encouraging students to think about what settler colonialism actually meant for American Indians—individuals, families, communities, and tribes. Depositions in support of Kamiskwasigay’s pension application hint at the results of treaties. The Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, negotiated in Detroit in 1855, reserved tracts of land for the Anishinaabek and detailed a process for the allotment of Indigenous land into eighty- and forty-acre lots.[10] From the perspective of the federal and the state governments, allotment in the 1855 treaty, like the large-scale allotment of Indigenous land in the later Dawes Act, was meant to encourage American Indians, especially men, to become individual, landholding farmers. The idea behind allotment was to discourage and restrict seasonal subsistence strategies based on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and agriculture. In the logic of settler colonialism, transforming the Anishinaabek into individual landholding farmers would mean the Anishinaabek required less land, which opened the possibility that Anishinaabe land could be sold by these individual landholders in the future. Wakazoo’s 1868 testimony suggests that Kamiskwasigay had an allotment connected to the 1855 treaty. American Indian pension files underscore that some Civil War veterans and their families were dealing with multiple branches of the Department of the Interior—both the Bureau of Pensions and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Description of a mother’s pension application, 1862. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Kamiskwasigay’s story demonstrates the effects of both the Civil War and settler colonialism on her life—the loss of her son and her ability to support herself related to disputes over reserved land, the allotment process, and land title. Individual stories help students gain a better understanding of settler colonialism during the Civil War era. Through the pension application process, American Indians appealed to the federal government for resources based on their identities as veterans (or veterans’ family members), while at the same time working to remain on or near parts of their homelands.

By including stories like Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s in discussions of Civil War veterans and their families, we gain a better understanding of the ramifications of the Civil War for multiple groups of people. The pension process, seen from the perspective of American Indian veterans, demonstrates a need to consider the effects of settler colonialism. In general, veterans complained of skeptical bureaucrats who orchestrated invasive questions and medical exams during the application process, especially if a special examiner was sent to question neighbors and the pension applicant.[11] For Indigenous veterans, invasive questioning seemed threatening due to multiple circumstances. In reports concerning two Company K veterans, for instance, the special examiner noted that many of the Anishinaabek he tried to interview refused ”to talk to a stranger because they have been so persistently and shamefully defrauded by the whites that they think any time a white stranger enters into conversation with them it is for the purpose of gaining information that will bring them trouble or deprive them of their property in future.”[12] Pension examinations coincided with Anishinaabe struggles to gain clear title to their lands, as well as land fraud committed by speculators who obtained deeds through deception. The Anishinaabek were wary of strangers, questions, and paperwork. Their wariness, compared to their white comrades, had an additional layer determined by their Anishinaabe identities and dealings with white government officials.

Pension cases that introduce students to the post-war experiences of American Indian veterans are also important to consider in comparison to other veterans’ experiences. Considering African American and American Indian pension files in juxtaposition can help students understand how constructed racial hierarchies and nineteenth-century conceptions of “savagery” and “civilization” affected veterans’ experiences and the pension application process. Furthermore, pension files are replete with stories of white settlers. Considering American Indian veterans next to their Euro-American counterparts, and reading pension files through the analytical framework of settler colonialism, helps students understand Euro-American pension files in new ways. In addition, Lucy Kamiskwasigay’s pension application is a reminder that, while the majority of Indigenous peoples lived west of the Mississippi River after the Civil War, there were also Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi who were negotiating settler colonial policies.


[1] “The Michigan Sharpshooters,” Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, September 5, 1864, 4.

[2] Louis Miskoguon, September 1, 1865, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay (mother of Peter South), RG 15, National Archives, Washington D.C., and Compiled Service Record of Peter South, Civil War, Company K, First Michigan Sharpshooters, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, RG 94, National Archives.

[3] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa [Augustus Ottawa], May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[4] Joseph Wakazoo and Aug. Otawa, May 15, 1868, in Civil War Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay, NARA.

[5] Pension File of Lucy Kamiskwasigay. Kamiskwasigay is also discussed in Michelle Cassidy, “‘Both the Honor and the Profit’: Anishinaabe Warriors, Soldiers, and Veterans from Pontiac’s War through the Civil War,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2016), 285-286.

[6] Laurence M. Hauptman, “Introduction,” in American Indians and the Civil War, ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2013), 11.

[7] Susannah Ural, “Teaching the American Civil War through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans,” Muster, March 26, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[8] For definitions of settler colonialism, see, for example, Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4-6; Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, and Legacies (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 2-4, and Nancy Shoemaker, “A Typology of Colonialism,” Perspectives of History (October 2015), 29-30.

[9] For more teaching ideas related to settler colonialism and the Civil War, see Cate Denial, “A Different View of the U.S. Civil War” Cate Denial Blog, May 23, 2019, accessed June 17, 2019,

[10] Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa, 1855, in Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties vol. II, ed. Charles J. Kappler (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 725-731.

[11] Brian Matthew Jordan, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014), 151-169.

[12] Special Examiner R.P. Fletcher to the Commissioner of Pensions, May 1887, Civil War Pension File of Leon Otashquabono, NARA.

Michelle Cassidy

Michelle Cassidy is assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current project emphasizes the importance of American Indian military service to discussions of race and citizenship during the Civil War era. She has presented her research at numerous conferences and has published an article in the Michigan Historical Review.

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